A research grant sometimes can lead a scientist in a new direction. But a shift into politically sensitive territory can put the federal funding agency in hot water with Congress.
That's what happened yesterday to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), at a hearing on how agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services are dealing with tight budgets. One legislator wanted to know why an NIH grantee's research on tobacco control delved into the origins of the Tea Party. Although conservative lawmakers often take issue with certain NIH grants, what was surprising was that Collins said he was troubled by it as well.
The U.S. House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee on health and human services, labor, and education met to ask the directors of five agencies about ways to avoid duplicating research in a tight budget environment. Toward the end of the 2-hour hearing, Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) asked about a specific National Cancer Institute (NCI)-funded study tracing Tea Party's origins to groups supported by tobacco companies (video around 1:51 here ). "They allege that somehow the Tea Party had its origin in the 1980s with tobacco funding, which is pretty incredible," Harris said. "Because I mean, I'm a Tea Party guy. I was there when it was established in 2009. I know the origins. I find it incredible that NIH funding is funding this," Harris said, adding that the study reflects "a partisan political agenda."
"I, too, am quite troubled about this particular circumstance," Collins replied. He pointed out that the lead author, University of California, San Francisco, researcher Stanton Glantz, has been an NCI grantee for 14 years and is considered a leading researcher on tobacco control. The paper, which listed support from an NCI training grant  and an NCI research grant , also included a disclaimer that the NCI played no role in choosing the topic of the study. But, Collins added, "We thought we were funding a different kind of research when those grants were awarded."
Harris fired back: "What is within the NIH's abilities to, shall we say, make sure that this researcher or this institution doesn't play fast and loose with taxpayer money in this kind of research?"
"It's a very appropriate question and I'm struggling with it, to be honest," Collins replied. "The tension here is both to recognize that [the paper] is an unfortunate outcome, but also not to put NIH in a position of basically playing a nanny over top of everything our grantees do."
The study, published  last month inTobacco Control, received coverage in both the liberal  and conservative  press. In it, Glantz and co-authors make the case that two nonprofit groups funded by tobacco companies to fight tobacco taxes and no-smoking laws were among the earliest supporters of what became the Tea Party.
Glantz said he is "very troubled" by Collins's remarks. His grant proposal didn't hide anything, he says. Written several years ago, it discussed his plan to study the influence on policymaking of "third parties" funded by the tobacco industry. "We didn't go looking for the Tea Party. It emerged naturally in the course of the research," he says, just as a cell biologist's research grant might lead in an unexpected direction.
It's not the first time Glantz's research has drawn hostility from Congress. In 1995, House appropriators voted to defund his NCI grant, but their recommendation was stripped from the final spending bill that year. "This is déjà vu all over again," Glantz says.